Australia 1-2 Italy; Stoppage time winner earns Italy surprise victory

Australia 1-2 Italy; Stoppage time winner earns Italy surprise victory

Italy scored a last-gasp winner to complete a fight back from a goal behind against Australia, coming out 2-1 winners in their opening 2019 Women’s World Cup match in Valenciennes.

In one of the tournament’s finest contests so far, Australia took the lead through a penalty – Sam Kerr missed the initial spot kick, but was on hand to sweep home the rebound.

However, Italy showed their resilience and fought back in the second half, with Juventus star Barbara Bonansea scoring both goals. Either side of Bonansea’s equaliser, Italy also saw two more goals disallowed – correctly – for offside by VAR.

Italy went into the match having not played a game at a Women’s World Cup finals since their group stage elimination back in 1999 in the United States.

Now ranked 15th in the women’s world rankings, they went into the match against an Australia side that sat nine places above them and who were hotly-tipped to be a powerful force in this year’s competition. Many saw them as being within a good chance of progressing to the final in Lyon. Italy were seen as a difficult hurdle, but one the Australians should have been able to overcome with relative ease.

Unsurprisingly, then, there were joyous scenes among the Italian camp at the full time whistle in Valenciennes’ Stade du Hainaut in northeastern France.

Italy thought they’d initially opened the scoring when Bonansea was threaded through courtesy of a beautifully-weighted ball, and the Juventus star held off the challenge of two defenders. Forcing her way into the box, she managed to squeeze the ball into the back of the net.

However, as has been a regular theme at these Women’s World Cup finals, VAR had the final say and ruled the goal out. Bonansea, on the replays, had been ever so marginally offside – and extremely harsh call, personally, but the system at least showed its reasoning for the decision.

While the scores remained level, the goal did imbue the Italians with confidence, which they needed not long after when Australia were awarded a golden opportunity to wrestle control of the game back.

Initially it looked like they had achieved just that, when Kerr was brought down in the box by Italy captain Sara Gama.

Kerr, and all-time record goalscorer in the top professional leagues in both her native Australia and the United States, stepped up to take it, and despite the initial penalty being saved by Laura Giuliani, she was able to fire home the rebound.

It was her first goal at the Women’s World Cup finals, in her ninth appearance across three tournaments. A huge moment, not just for Australia in the match, but personally, Kerr celebrated with something quite familiar to Australian football fans; boxing the corner flag much like Australian men’s team legend Tim Cahill.

Italy weren’t to be denied, however.

As the second half kicked off, Italy pressed the Australian repeatedly and finally got their just rewards.

A mistake at the back from Australia centre back Clare Polkinghorne gifted possession to Italy, and Bonansea took full advantage to pounce. Italy’s star performer in the match weaved her way into the penalty area before rounding the remaining Australia defender Alanna Kennedy and slotting home a cool finish.

It gave Italy the belief they needed, and soon they were the side in the ascendancy.

They thought they’d won the game too late on, when Daniela Sabatino was played in and managed to squeeze her effort past Lydia Williams in the Australia goal. The effort rebounded back off the upright, but Sabatino was quickest to react and slot home into the open net despite the tight angle.

However, in yet another cruel twist of fate against the Europeans, the offside flag once again ruled out the goal. VAR confirmed the decision, but replays showed Sabatino much more clearly offside than the earlier disallowed one.

Italy would have had all right to feel hard done by had the game finished 1-1, and it looked certain to be going that way right until the dying seconds.

In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Italy won a corner and fired it in, only to spark wild, jubilant celebrations when Bonansea, naturally, was on hand to head down and into the back of the net.

The underdogs in the match had snatched an incredible late point, and provided the first real shock of this Women’s World Cup finals in a highly entertaining game.

Heading into their next games, Italy will be thrilled to have already secured points on the board and be relatively confident of potentially securing a way out of the group stage.

For Australia, however, this result will have been a real knock for them. Favourites of many to go far in this tournament, it was not the result they needed, especially with a tough game against Brazil still to go in the group stage.

In the end, they’ll need to rally around and move forward, but losing the game will have hurt. Losing the game in the last few seconds, especially so, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can pick themselves back up and continue in the form they were expected to have, or if they may be one of the first major casualties at these finals.

Germany 1-0 China; Hard-fought opening win for Germany but defensive frailties exposed by the Steel Roses

Germany 1-0 China; Hard-fought opening win for Germany but defensive frailties exposed by the Steel Roses

Germany claimed an opening victory in their Group B game against China in the 2019 Women’s World Cup through a wonderful Giulia Gwinn strike, but it wasn’t plain sailing for the Europeans in Rennes.

From the first kick of the game, Germany looked to assert their dominance over the Chinese team, but were faced with an unexpectedly feisty and physical opposition.

The Steel Roses were not afraid to go flying into challenges, much to the frustrations of a number of German players – particularly Alexandra Popp, who found herself repeatedly targeted.

Germany struggled to cope and settle against that battling Chinese approach, and despite their control over the ball, it was those donned in red that fashioned the first real chance of the game.

An awful mistake by German defender Sara Doorsoun saw her play a loose ball across the field at the back, which was easily picked off by China and gifted the opponents a dangerous attack. Luckily for Doorsoun, Gu Yasha delayed her strike too long, before playing in Yang Li and the Wolfsburg defender was able to get back and recover brilliantly with a crucial block.

It was a wake up call for the Germans, though.

Carolin Simon almost gave Germany the lead shortly after when a wicked cross she fired in almost found its way directly in, smacking against the crossbar of Peng Shimeng’s goal.

The physical contest continued, with Popp taking another firm blow before China themselves lost a player through injury. Lou Jiahui was unable to run off a foot injury – and in between being quite comically (and thankfully for the officials given it let Germany attack instead, uncontroversially) body checked by the referee – was forced off the field in an early substitution.

Doorsoun again late in the half was guilty of playing a careless ball across the back four of Germany and seeing it picked off, and this time Yang Li was released by a sublime ball, only to see her curling effort cannon against the upright.

The second half went much the same way the first had ended, with Germany still comfortably in the ascendancy, but yet still lacking that crucial goal. China continued to press and physically bully the German players – a clear tactical decision – and committed foul after foul, collecting a slew of yellow cards in the process.

Popp and her teammates continued to grow increasingly frustrated, with tempers even spilling over on one occasion – a much more rare sight in the women’s game, compared with the men’s.

Finally, however, after winning a careless corner kick from China courtesy of a poor defensive touch, Germany made the breakthrough they needed.

China once again defended the initial ball well, heading clear to the edge of the box, but Gwinn was on hand to collect and smash home a superb strike through the Chinese legs and beyond the diving glove of Peng.

Gwinn had been one of Germany best and most creative players throughout the match, and the confidence and joy was clear on her face as the ball struck the back of the net. Collectively, the German fans and players could breathe a small sigh of relief.

China weren’t done yet, determined to continue to spoil the party and get something for their efforts. With eight minutes to go on the clock, they almost did too after earning a rare set piece from the Germans.

Swung into the box, their European opponents couldn’t successfully deal with the ball and China looked to force an opening but, when it was finally swept at goal by Zhang Rui, the ball could only sail over the bar.

The full time whistle saw the result confirmed and Germany happily secure their first three points of this Women’s World Cup group stage, but it wasn’t an easy game for the European side.

China fought them to the end, and perhaps worryingly for coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the Steel Roses exposed some real defensive frailties among her side. Much of the Chinese side’s most dangerous play came not from their own creative moves but rather poor mistakes at the back from the Germans.

Added to that, the German players appeared to struggle somewhat to settle in the game against the physicality and roughness imposed by the China players.

It made for an interesting spectacle and one that Germany will have plenty to take away from and look to improve upon on the training pitch ahead of their next game.

However, ultimately, they still walk away from Rennes with the crucial three points and their tournament campaign well under way.

For China, meanwhile, it was a tough, battling display they put on but they leave empty-handed, making their next meeting – against Women’s World Cup newcomers South Africa – that much more important.

France 4-0 South Korea; Les Bleues look confident as Le Sommer, Renard & Henry star in stunning opening win

France 4-0 South Korea; Les Bleues look confident as Le Sommer, Renard & Henry star in stunning opening win

The 2019 Women’s World Cup kicked off in the Parc des Princes in Paris with a confident 4-0 win for hosts France against South Korea, with centre back Wendie Renard netting twice.

Forward Eugenie Le Sommer had opened the scoring for France, before Les Bleues’ other central defender Griedge Mbock Bathy saw a goal disallowed following a VAR check.

Renard made full use of her significant height advantage in the box to score twice before half time from set pieces, before late in the second half French captain Amandine Henry netted a superb fourth.

South Korea looked nervous from the first moments of the game, especially in defence, and France’s superior movement took advantage of that to full effect.

Continually Marion Torrent and Delphine Cascarino combined out wide to burst past the South Korean defence, whipping dangerous balls into the box. Similarly, Le Sommer and full back Amel Majri did the same on the opposite wing.

The opening goal of the 2019 Women’s World Cup came from exactly that style of move. Pace out wide caused South Korea problems and Le Sommer pounced on the defensive disorganisation to drive home the crucial first goal on home turf.

Nerves continued to press South Korea, seen clearly when they spurned their chance to create some pressure on the French box from a corner straight out of play into the side netting of Sarah Bouhaddi’s goal.

France thought they had a second from a beautifully worked set piece, in comparison, not long after. A short take saw it played out wide of the box and swung from a deeper angle, before Renard headed it back across the South Korea box towards defensive partner Mbock Bathy.

The Olympique Lyonnais defender, who was sporting quite a significant knee brace, struck home an effort from an awkward height acrobatically, only to then find it ruled out by a lengthy VAR check.

Much to the frustrations of the partisan French crowd, the VAR check took several minutes. However, when a final decision was made, and the visual graphic shown, Mbock Bathy did indeed have a foot beyond the last defender and the call to disallow the goal was correct.

It didn’t matter for too long though for the host nation, as not long after France had another set piece and this time simply opted to stick the ball onto the head of Renard.

The towering centre back, one of the tournaments tallest players at 6ft 1″ and standing nearly half a foot above her South Korean opponents, found little challenge in guiding the ball past opposition goalkeeper Kim Min-Jeong.

That height proved potent once again from another set piece late in first half stoppage time, as Renard powered a strong header into the back of the South Korean net once again. The goal came from France’s 10th corner of the first half, and Renard had been a danger at almost every one where a good delivery had been made.

South Korea looked to create at least some chances in the second half and the introduction of young starlet Kang Chae-Rim, a 21-year-old making just her second senior international appearance, sparked a few rare chances for the team in white.

Kang showed determination in making space and a rare run towards the French box, putting in a good cross but there was nobody there to meet it. Shortly after the youngster, with number 23 emblazoned across the back of her shirt, was involved again, firing over after collecting the ball near the edge of the French box.

Renard made a mistake late on to allow South Korea through in a one-on-one chance with Bouhaddi but Lee Min-A saw the pressure get to her and spurned the chance wide poorly.

Even despite the occasional South Korean chance in the second half, France never looked in danger of relinquishing any ounce of control on the match and late on in the match they rounded off their dominant opening match display.

Captain fantastic Henry picked up the ball midway inside the South Korean half and drove towards the box, cutting inside and stroking home a beautiful, curling effort into the far corner of the net.

The smiles and celebrations, dancing with her teammates, showed the joy and emotion that was being felt all around the stadium in Paris as Les Bleues showed why they have gone into their home tournament as joint favourites with the USA.

A late flurry of desire came from the South Korean players, but ultimately – much like most of the match – they simply couldn’t find enough creativity to make significant distance up the pitch, having started entrenched so deep from the constant French pressure.

It was a brilliant opening display from the host side, who demonstrated to frightening degree the talent and attacking desire that coach Corinne Diacre has at her disposal and lay down a real marker to the rest of the top-ranked sides in the tournament.

This is France’s tournament. They have spoken many a time about wanting to follow in the men’s side’s footsteps and lift the World Cup come tournament’s end.

Well, against an albeit shaky South Korean side, they showed they certainly have the quality to do so.

They were always one to watch going into the tournament, but big sides sometimes falter under pressure. Sometimes the expectations can weigh too heavy on the minds of players and cost teams expected to do well. Some sides simply cannot match what is expected of them before the tournament begins.

Diacre’s France do not seem to be one of those sides.

Why Guangzhou Evergrande’s decision to suspend Wei Shihao for a bad tackle is utter madness

Why Guangzhou Evergrande’s decision to suspend Wei Shihao for a bad tackle is utter madness

Nobody likes to see a player suffer a serious injury, and especially not through a rash tackle from an opponent. While aggression and competitiveness are key elements of the modern game, there are times when players can get a rush of blood and cross the line.

Chinese international Wei Shihao was guilty of just such an incident during the most recent international break when during the first half of a 1-0 defeat to Uzbekistan in the China Cup, he scythed down opponent Otabek Shukurov with a rash challenge.

Shukurov was unable to continue in the match and forced to go to hospital following the injury, where it was discovered the Uzbek midfielder had suffered a fractured tibia. He now faces at least two months on the sidelines.

At the time, Wei Shihao only received a yellow card from Qatari referee Mohammed Al Shummari.

However, the 23-year-old winger received mass criticism from Chinese fans and media for the tackle, which was condemned as a “malicious” foul. His club, Guangzhou Evergrande, took an even more extreme approach, suspending the player for an entire month whilst they evaluated his future with the club.

The seven-time champions of the Chinese Super League released a statement saying: “The club has decided to give Wei Shihao a one-month suspension and the player should report to the club’s human resources department to have a deep self-examination.

“The club will decide if he will be expelled based on his self-examination.

“Before the new Chinese Super League season, our club published a series of new regulations to better manage the players. We have higher requirements on our players, but Wei Shihao seriously violated the regulations during the China Cup.”

This was despite public and private apologies from Wei Shihao, who also visited Shukurov in the hospital – and had an apology accepted by the injured Uzbek international.

Shukurov even went so far as to ask Guangzhou Evergrande for leniency on social media following the announcement of the suspension.

Now, in fairness, I can understand the logic that has probably crossed the minds of those in charge at Guangzhou Evergrande. With huge backlash across both the press and social media, they’ve took a hugely reactionary approach and ran with a hard line stance; a significant suspension.

Nobody wants their club associated with violent acts, I get that, but this isn’t a player who has done something that is exclusively and clearly intentionally unsportsmanlike. He’s not gone out his way and punched an opponent.

Is it a really bad tackle? Yes. Does it look like it was largely born out of frustration in a game that wasn’t going China’s way? Yes, again.

However, I don’t believe that Wei Shihao has gone in with the intention of injuring Shukurov.

That’s why I find the idea of suspending one of your top, up-and-coming talents for a month – and talking about potentially terminating his contract – entirely baffling.

Even if Wei Shihao returns to play for Guangzhou Evergrande after the suspension, he’s going to be affected. Not only has it given him a damaging reputation, but it will have likely affected him psychologically. You’d imagine he will be a lot more hesitant to tackle an opponent following this incident.

For an exciting young player in Chinese football, who was just starting to make a place for himself in the national team, it seems like a really sad situation brought about by a major overreaction from his club.

There’s a very real possibility that Wei Shihao will not reach the potential he could maybe have done after this situation, all because of a bad tackle – something that is far from uncommon in the modern game.

Why the Chinese goalkeeper rule may not actually be beneficial for development

Why the Chinese goalkeeper rule may not actually be beneficial for development

When people think of China and football there is one thing that comes to mind in modern times; money. In the past five years or so, the Far East nation has been the source of some of the most astronomical transfer fees and dealings.

Yet, there remains one crucial position on the football pitch entirely untouched by that big-money business.

The goalkeeper.

And that’s for good reason too. Clubs simply aren’t allowed to.

As part of the rules set by the Chinese Football Association, clubs must field Chinese goalkeepers. This prevents the Chinese Super League sides from exercising their considerable financial might when it comes to the shot-stopping department.

The rule came into affect with good intentions too. Chinese football’s governing body acknowledged early on that the wealth that Chinese clubs could invest in players would see an influx in foreign players – largely big-name stars from Europe – coming over to ply their trade for mega-money deals.

For most positions on the football pitch, that was fine. Chinese football maintains a foreign player cap, so Chinese players were getting to play alongside top players and, as such, would likely find their own game slowly improving.

However, in football, there is only ever one goalkeeper on the pitch for a side. That presented a unique problem; how to ensure that Chinese clubs didn’t simply go out and buy a star man between the sticks and let their Chinese talent languish in the depths of the squad.

For a country led by football enthusiast Xi Jinping and with genuine desires to win a World Cup in the not too distant future, not developing domestic goalkeepers that could help national team success would be a real problem.

Hence, the foreign goalkeeper ban came into effect.

Yet, I’m not convinced it has truly worked. Certainly, by Asian football standards, there are some relatively talented Chinese goalkeepers playing in the country’s top-flight.

However, they haven’t managed to push on and reach that next level of talent in goal. There aren’t really big name teams in Europe scouting and snapping up Chinese talent in general, but especially not in the goalkeeper market. They still seem to be just slightly off the grade necessary at the moment.

And I think some of that does come down to the negative effect of the Chinese goalkeeper rule.

While it does ensure that there are sixteen Chinese goalkeepers playing week-in, week-out in the top flight, it also stops foreign goalkeepers arriving who could help coach and push those players to the next level. The competition and need to improve isn’t as great as it would be for the Chinese goalkeepers had foreign players in their position been allowed to arrive.

And similarly, there is little desire for Chinese goalkeepers to move beyond their country. Why would they want to look abroad, to moves to other top Asian nations or to Europe, when they can remain domestic and have guarantees that they’ll play, and competitive and sometimes even overly-inflated wages.

If Chinese football truly wants to push for major improvement and even win a World Cup, then in terms of goalkeepers it needs to think seriously about loosening its strict domestic-only rule.

More than anything, to encourage Chinese goalkeepers to aim for and reach the next level, and potentially seek opportunities in more established footballing nations and leagues abroad. That may well prove necessary for any real success on an international stage.

The curious case of Alphonse Areola; The World Cup winner who could have represented someone else afterwards

The curious case of Alphonse Areola; The World Cup winner who could have represented someone else afterwards

Winning a World Cup is the greatest accomplishment a player could ever achieve with their national team… but what about then still being able to go on to represent a different nation entirely?

It sounds like a ludicrous proposition. A surely impossible one, right?

Yet, French goalkeeper Alphonse Areola could have done exactly that. The Paris Saint-Germain shot stopper found himself in a situation so bizarre that it had likely never happened before, and is unlikely to do so again.

Areola was a part of the France squad assembled by Didier Deschamps that took Russia by storm in the 2018 World Cup and lifted the trophy come the final whistle in Moscow on 15 July.

He was third choice goalkeeper, behind Hugo Lloris and Steve Mandanda, but was part of the 23-man squad all the same. Areola is part of the celebrations with the squad, and took his turn lifting the famous trophy aloft.

And yet, there remained one incredible catch. He had never made a senior international appearance for France.

Despite having received his first call up in October 2015, the Paris-born goalkeeper had always taken his place on the bench, watching on as Les Bleus achieved their success.

That meant that Areola – given that both his parents were of Filipino heritage – was still entirely eligible to represent the Philippines at international level. Even after having won international football’s highest accolade with an entirely different nation; France.

Now, obviously, Areola was not likely ever considering a dramatic late switch to the Philippines. The 26-year-old had his eyes and heart set on a place between the sticks for France, and was certainly a good enough keeper to justify it.

However, it’s just a fun and wildly unusual situation to consider. Had it been a nation whose national team is of a stronger calibre to the Philippines, a fellow World Cup contender say, and Areola could have legitimately – entirely in keeping with the rules of FIFA and international football – won World Cups with two entirely separate nations.

That would possibly be the greatest story in international football.

As it is, Areola did not opt to make a shock switch across continents to play for the Philippines and instead his patience paid off. With a thigh injury ruling out Lloris, Areola made his senior international debut for France in the UEFA Nations League (putting an end to this possible scenario) and put in a man of the match performance.

He has since earned a second France cap and is playing fairly regularly in Ligue 1 this season for Paris Saint-Germain, with the future looking bright for the France star.

However, how things could have so incredibly different had he done the unthinkable and begun representing a nation different to the one he won the World Cup with.

Kazuyoshi Miura: Proving age is indeed just a number

Kazuyoshi Miura: Proving age is indeed just a number

In the modern game, a player is described as being in the twilight years of their career as soon as they reach the other side of 30. For Kazuyoshi Miura, he was reaching that stage in the late 1990s – so it’s rather incredible to discover the Japanese striker is still playing professional football today.

In fact, Miura recently signed a new contract with his Japanese second division club Yokohama FC – despite being 51-years-old.

The Shizuoka-born striker started his career all the way back in 1986 and was born in the same month as Italy legend Roberto Baggio. By comparison, Baggio retired in 2004.

A year after Baggio retired, Miura joined his current club Yokohama FC. Having spent 13 years at the Japanese side, he continues to rack up a remarkable number of appearances given his age.

In 2017, he netted in a league match against Thespakusatsu Gunma in order to break Sir Stanley Matthews’ record as the oldest professional footballer to score a goal.

As a 15-year-old Miura left Japan to pursue his football dream in Brazil, and even played senior football for Santos and Palmeiras – way back in 1986. For a concept of how far back this was, one of his Palmeiras teammates was Mirandinha, who the following year became the first Brazilian to play in English football when he joined Newcastle United. Miura played again for Santos in 1990.

In 1993, Miura was top scorer and most-valuable player in the Japanese J.League’s inaugural season, ahead of Gary Lineker and Zico. He also played in Europe for Genoa and Dinamo Zagreb.

Miura’s career reads as an incredible, and almost unbelievable, story of achievements and experiences across the footballing globe – and one that has continued on for longer than possibly anyone could have ever predicted.

The player himself remains humble in his attitude too, having said when signing his most recent contract with Yokohama FC: “I will not waste it for one minute, one second.”

Miura, like every football fan, understands what he has achieved is remarkable, and while some evidently incredible genetics and cardio are certainly helping the elder statesman of football along, its clear above all else that his passion for the game is what is driving him.

Truly, he is an inspiration to any footballers coming towards their careers’ proverbial end, and the footballing epitome of the idiom ‘age is just a number’.